Introducing Jersey Chic: Good Teams, Lovely Swamps

Like a few other team owners in our neighborhood, Dr. McMullen has decided that the building his team currently calls home, the Continental Airlines Arena in the Meadowlands sports complex, just isn’t good enough. “Time has passed it by,” he said, which, in team-owner patois, means that the 17-year-old arena doesn’t have the retail operations or luxury suites to generate the kind of revenue he thinks he needs to pay his players and soak his heirs.

So now he wants to build a palace right on the Hudson, over a New Jersey Transit and Port Authority rail terminal, a mere Bronx cheer from Madison Square Garden. “The suites on the south and east sides of the arena will have windows,” he said. “You’ll have a great view of Manhattan over there.”

Might it even be possible, he was asked, to see the Garden through those windows?

“Whatever,” he said.

Whatever indeed. Dr. McMullen may be trying to establish a beachhead for New Jersey sports just a mile or so from the Garden, but that doesn’t mean he wants to steal customers from the its main tenants, the Knicks and the Rangers. He might, however, relish the possibility of stealing a little of their thunder.

This year, New Jersey has quietly emerged as the dominant player in the game of interstate sport. Don’t be deceived by the ragged thrill of Knicks-Heat II: The Rematch. No matter how the playoff series between the two teams turns out, you can bet your bonus that the Knicks won’t be challenging for the National Basketball Association title any time soon. The skirmish is but a convenient diversion from the fact that Manhattan’s blue-chip winter teams, the Rangers and the Knicks, have been surpassed in skill, promise and sex appeal by their cousins from the dark side of the Palisades, the Devils and the Nets. The New Jersey teams finally are having their moment.

While the aging and injured Knicks, laboring to stay with the Miami Heat, have shown they’re on the wane, the youthful and injured Nets, playing the Chicago Bulls close, have furnished a preview of championship runs to come. They aren’t great, but they are exciting. Coach John Calipari has them playing grown-up college ball. They run and pass. They got game. They have a dynamic rookie in kneesocks

(Keith Van Horn) and a world-class rebounder who, unlike most other world-class rebounders, is actually a pretty good guy (Jayson Williams). What do the Knicks have? A few God-fearing guards and a handful of valiant old battlers who belong in a hot tub, not a media guide.

As for the Devils, critics have long complained that their conservative style and anonymous roster lull fans (and opponents) to sleep. But the reality is that they skate fast, hit hard and (this helps) win games. They’re mature, but not old. They have re-signed captain Scott Stevens and goaltender Martin Brodeur, their all-star defensive battery, to long-term contracts, and they have a virtually bottomless reserve of fast and rugged young prospects who fit seamlessly into their system. If they don’t win their second Stanley Cup this season, they might next year or the year after that.

The Rangers, on the other hand, are old and slow. They risk losing their two skilled stalwarts, captain Brian Leetch and goalie Mike Richter, to free agency, this summer and the next, respectively. And their star attraction, Wayne Gretzky, will not be around much longer. Last year, the Rangers’ season was deemed a success precisely because they beat the Devils in the playoffs. This year, they didn’t beat the Devils once, much less make the playoffs. The cross-Hudson rivalry that bloomed earlier this decade has withered. The inferiority complex that has long belonged to the Devils has moved into the Garden.

“It’s important to us for the Rangers to have a good team,” Dr. McMullen said, as he gazed east the other day. True, but it’s even more important to them.

In terms of attendance, the Nets and Devils have just come off their best seasons ever. The Nets had 15 sellouts, the Devils 18. The Nets in particular have come a long way from their Piscataway days, when they played to 8,500 at the Rutgers Athletic Center after moving to New Jersey from Long Island. “We had to do everything we could to distract the fans from how bad the team was,” recalled Howard Freeman, the Nets’ former public relations director. When Mount St. Helens erupted, they held a “Mount St. Michelob” night when the Portland Trail Blazers came to town. “We gave away volcanic ash. Arthur Ashe threw out the first ball. We had a sellout crowd after 14 losses in a row.”

Now they’re starting to win. They no longer have anything to hide.

Coinciding with this winning epidemic is a minor outbreak of New Jersey chic. Robert Sullivan’s book called The Meadowlands -yeah, the swamp, not the sports complex-was greeted with hosannas in The New York Times Book Review by the nation’s poet laureate. A film about a fictional American Basketball Association team, the New Jersey Turnpikes, is in the works. The waterfront is getting developed. A light rail system is coming. The New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark has been hailed as a gem, the centerpiece of a renaissance in that much-bedraggled city.

Meanwhile, the state is reported to be talking seriously with George Steinbrenner about a Jersey ball park for the Yankees. And it has made beefing up its athletic program at Rutgers University, the state university, a top priority.

The last great barrier to a big-time Jersey sports buzz on this side of the river may just be the swamp itself. There’s no getting around it: The Meadowlands sports complex is a drag. Even die-hard sports fans don’t relish the thought of a bus ride from the Port Authority Terminal through the Lincoln Tunnel to the swamp and back again. Dr. McMullen, who is known for parking his chauffeured car anywhere he pleases, once sampled the Port Authority-East Rutherford experience so that he could judge it fairly. “I took the bus once to find out what it’s like,” he said. “It’s a disaster. Just dreadful.”

So it’s no wonder each of the New Jersey teams has perfected the modern art of pursuing a fancy new arena, a talent the Garden’s tenants have not been forced to cultivate.

Yes, the Nets also would like to move out of the Continental Arena. Their lease is up in two years, while the Devils’ lease is up in 2007. The Nets are considering moves to Newark or even back to Nassau County. “The Nets aren’t staying,” Dr. McMullen said. “The only difference between them and us is that they’re more interested in selling [the team]. The more concessions they get from the sports authority, the higher the price for the team.”

Dr. McMullen has tried on a couple of recent occasions to buy the Nets. If he ever succeeded, they might make nice co-tenants in Hoboken.

So far, the mayors of the towns on the Hudson like the idea of a Hoboken arena for all the obvious reasons: jobs, tax dollars, road improvements, cachet. But the Hoboken land belongs to the state, and Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, in support of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which owns, operates and reaps a portion of the revenue from the Meadowlands, is in no hurry to help Dr. McMullen break his lease in East Rutherford. “Our position is that we expect them to play here through the 2007 season,” said a spokesman for the authority.

Still, Dr. McMullen is tirelessly pitching his Hoboken plan. In a Highlander ball cap and a dandruff-flecked suit, Dr. McMullen led a visitor into the oxidized terminal building and summoned visions of locker rooms and mezzanines. He pointed out water damage and the abandoned ferry slips, as though the degraded state of the landmark terminal building and the shoreline justified his particular plan for improving them. At one point, he stood at the edge of the river and surveyed a landscape of rotten pilings. “It’s a disgrace,” he said. “It’s in a shambles.”

He was facing east, so you could be forgiven for thinking that he was referring to the state of sport over there on the island of Manhattan.